Teaching with Tech
Biology professor creates videos to help engage, teach students
By BoNhia Lee
A large television screen on the back wall of Fresno State biology professor Dr. Joseph Ross’ office acts as a digital whiteboard ready for a genetics lesson when students visit during office hours.
Using an iPad, Ross draws diagrams of cellular processes that appear on the big screen to help students understand the week’s lesson. He records the tutorial and posts it on YouTube so other students can watch and learn.
Ross also records his class lectures, makes practice exam videos and uses Lightboard technology, a glass “chalkboard” pumped with light that allows instructors to face the camera, to create videos for his students.
“I wanted to be able to create specific videos about things that we were going to talk about in class,” Ross says. “That’s how this started. Then, I just realized more and more things you can do with videos.”
That includes tracking viewership through YouTube analytics, using timestamps, to understand what students are most interested in or need help with.
Ross has long been an advocate for the use of technology in classrooms. He was an early adopter of Fresno State’s DISCOVERe mobile technology program in 2014, and he is one of the nearly 400 faculty members trained to teach courses using tablets, laptops and smartphones.
During the 2018-19 academic year, more than 12,000 Fresno State students enrolled in DISCOVERe courses that make up about half of the classes offered on campus. A campus loaner program provides 1,600 free iPads for students to borrow through their college careers as long as they are enrolled in at least one DISCOVERe course.
Ross started creating videos so his students would have something more engaging than a traditional textbook to read before attending class.
One of his first techniques was a mobile PowerPoint display application projected on a big screen to his class. He uses his finger to write on his iPad and it shows up on top of the presentation for all to see. The application records Ross’ voice and the action on the tablet, which he later posts to YouTube.
“I’ve always wanted to ‘flip’ my classroom,” says Ross, who has been teaching for six years. “It’s this blended learning approach of how to get students to access content first outside of class, then in class in a way that is active and engaging.”
A couple of years ago, Ross made a full set of videos for his genetics class and has since incorporated those as part of the course manual. When he posts a video of an exam or the key, he creates a table of contents, which has links that appear as timestamps for every question or answer.
Students who start watching the video can jump from question to question by clicking the links. The analytics show the parts most viewers are skipping to for more information.
“This is how I know what they need help on,” Ross says. “If a lot of students, 78 percent of the students who started this video, are jumping to 14 minutes, 17 seconds, well, what was I talking about at that point?”
The next day in class, Ross asks if anybody has questions or if anyone needs review of a certain topic.
Videos are about “instant gratification, that on-demand resource,” Ross says. “Whenever a student, if it’s 11:30 at night or now, has time to work on this, they don’t have to email me or come to an office hour.”
Students learn in various ways and learn at different times of the day, says Fresno State English professor Mary Paul, who is also a DISCOVERe faculty member. Paul and Ross have shared their digital expertise across disciplines.
“Dr. Ross is offering students one more tool to succeed,” Paul says. “Although the videos are a lot of work on the front end, the time and effort pay off on the back end. Dr. Ross will be able to use the videos for future students and future classes.”
Senior biology major Arturo Aguilar, who took Ross’ genetics class a year and a half ago, is now working in Ross’ research lab studying how DNA is inherited from one generation to the next using microscopic worms.
Aguilar has taken several DISCOVERe courses, but none like Ross’ class. “In a lot of the DISCOVERe classes, you use your tablets to take notes, but the way Dr. Ross does it, he uses tablets and computers to interact in the classroom,” Aguilar says.
“I wish there were more teachers who teach like that because it makes everything easier,” Aguilar says. “I remember him going into detail and explaining everything in the videos. If you ever needed to go re-learn something, it was all in the video.”
— BoNhia Lee is a writer in University Communications at Fresno State.